By Dena Kirkpatrick Photo by Dudley BarkerPhoto by Dudley Barker

Winning is important and being successful is what drives most people, but I believe both should be kept in perspective. I have met many people who I feel have lost sight of the true meaning of success. In our sport, “winning” can mean a lot of different things. I find that most barrel racers who only focus on winning the 1D or first place at their rodeos easily become discouraged when adversities inevitably arise. The nature of any sport is that winners will rise and fall, and no athlete stays at the top of their game forever. Winning first place is an awesome feeling, but it represents a fleeting moment in time, and if a person is interested solely in that fleeting moment, they will feel unsuccessful more often than not. So, what is the most beneficial way to handle the winning and losing that comes with this wonderful sport of barrel racing, and what can we do to keep our competitive edge?

Read positive thinking books. I think that reading power of positive thinking books can be helpful as long as the information is logical. I make jokes about how I could imagine the perfect barrel run over and over in my mind, but if I am riding a slow horse, I’m still not going to win. I do, however, believe in being as prepared as possible before a run. I love the saying that “luck is where preparation and opportunity meet.” I am more inclined to want to practice perfectly, so that muscle memory in both my mind and body will, hopefully, take over during my performance. Also, that the muscle memory my horse has developed during our perfect practice will help him to perform at his best.

Don’t compare yourself to other competitors. Watching great competitors can help a person, but you must be careful about it. Horse/rider combinations all win for different reasons, so you must be very discerning about what you choose to try to mimic. Objectivity is the key in this case. You should consider the size and athleticism of the rider as well as the horse they are riding. There are many great horses with unorthodox styles. Recognizing that a style may be unique to a particular horse and not something that would necessarily be good to try to teach to another horse is very important.

When I was a youth, I was blessed with a little unregistered palomino named Spooky. He could run around a barrel leaving less than an inch of space between himself and the barrel and never knock one down. I won almost everything I took him to, from junior rodeos to pro rodeos. I roped off of him, tied goats off of him and ran many sub-20-second times in the pole bending on him. Consequently, the first horse (we called him George) I trained without help from my father had to suffer through me trying to make him into another Spooky. He was much bigger and longer-strided than Spooky. The two horses had absolutely nothing in common with each other, except for the fact that I was their jockey. Fortunately, George was very forgiving and tried his hardest to turn like I wanted him to. We won some, but he struggled and never reached his full potential. In retrospect, I realize that I hindered him so much by trying to make him into something he could never be, instead of recognizing his special talents and enhancing them.
             Graciously handle losing and winning. In barrel racing, they almost always pay money for many more places than first, and many factors should be considered when assessing your success at a particular event. One good example is the NFR. A barrel racer that makes the NFR and never wins a go-round should not feel unsuccessful, because they are successful for being one of the nation’s top 15 barrel racers. The ability to compete in Las Vegas is a huge accomplishment in itself. Sadly, I have known people who, after experiencing first place, began to be miserable when they didn’t win first most of the time. It is difficult to handle, being at the top and then dropping back down – which is a guarantee in barrel racing, since no horse lasts forever.

I once had a fellow racer ask me how I mentally handled the years I did not have a winning futurity horse. I thought about it for a minute, considering in my mind if I should be offended by this question. I answered simply, “This sport is like riding a roller coaster, and that you must be able to handle the lows as well as the highs if you intend to stay in the business.” A famous Vince Lombardi quote reads, “Show me a good loser, and I will show you a loser.” I know that he was an awesome coach, but for barrel racing, I disagree with this. The inability to lose gracefully, pick yourself up, work harder and try, try again, is sure to end your barrel racing career prematurely.

I love the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and I will quote the two lines from it that are inscribed above the entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same….” Be sure to read the whole poem when you get a chance, and give it deep thought. Notice that these lines put both winning and losing in the same category and calls them both imposters. Interesting thought! The inferred meaning, of course, is that if you can’t control the emotions with both winning and losing, you won’t last long in sports, or life, for that matter. The highs of winning shouldn’t be too high and the lows of losing shouldn’t be too low. One of my daughter, Sarah’s, basketball coaches said that there should be no emotions on the court. He would point out to her that getting mad or upset with herself for making a mistake took her focus off of her game, making it impossible to play her best. We all have emotions, for sure, but the best competitors among us never let them show while they are competing. Another phrase that I like is, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” Keeping your emotions from being exposed outwardly helps you stay calmer on the inside.

Hopefully this article will give you a bit more information that can help you avoid, or at the very least, decrease the incidents of frustration, nervousness or anxiety you may feel before and after you compete.

Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit Email comments on this article to [email protected].


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